"Those roles which, being neither those of Hero nor Heroine, Confidante nor Villain, but which were nonetheless essential to bring about the Recognition or the denouement, were called the Fifth Business in drama and opera companies organized according to the old style; the player who acted these parts was often referred to as Fifth Business."
That above definition of Fifth Business (which I think Davies must have invented…I didn’t find any other reference to it when doing a google-search) comes at least half way through the book. But it works and if you think about it, there are plenty of literary figures who fit that bill; characters who act as catalysts and observers of the main event while not being main players themselves.
In this book, it refers to the protagonist, Dunstable (aka Dunston, aka Dunny) Ramsay who narrates the book in the form of a letter to his former boss, the headmaster of a private boy’s preparatory school in Canada. Ramsay has just retired from 40+ years teaching, and he is expressing his dissatisfaction with the reductive, anodyne farewell article in the school paper, written by a college who barely knew him.
It is a little difficult to write what this book is about because the narrative itself dodges and weaves. The reader fairly quickly forgets the epistolary setting, though Ramsay will remind the reader of the format from time to time. At first it feels like a cradle to grave autobiography as Ramsay recounts his upbringing by stolid, Scotch stock Canadians in a small village in the early part of the 20th century. But then there is an event that will change young Dunny’s life forever. While walking home at age 10, he ducks to avoid being hit by a snowball thrown by his friend/nemesis Percy Boyd (aka Boy) Staunton. The snowball instead hits young, pregnant Mrs. Dempster, the wife of the local Baptist minister, causing her to go into labor prematurely. That event and its repercussions will reverberate all through the book right up to the last line…but as I stated above, the narration dodges and weaves so when it does pop up for the final time, it is a bit of a gut punch.
I have to wonder if John Irving read Fifth Business and was in any way inspired to write A Prayer for Owen Meany with its stray baseball which has consequences further on in THAT novel. In fact, I was reminded more than one of Irving while reading Fifth Business, in particular in its themes of guilt/redemption and coincidence/destiny, and yet they could not be further apart in many other ways, not the least of which is length. Fifth Business came in at a concise 252 pages which is a fraction of Irving’s typical tome pages.
There is a lot to chew on here in terms of themes on faith, obligation, guilt, self-invention and self realization... Presbyterian Dunny has a religious experience during WWI that sets him off on a quest to research and write about the lives Catholic Saints. He also never forgets his debt to Mrs. Dempster or her premature child. Boy Staunton becomes filthy rich and politically powerful, a nice counterpoint to what Dunny is not or does not want to become, but is Dunny using Boy or is Boy using Dunny? And I haven’t even gotten the characters of Liesl and Magnus Eisengrim and how they will figure in Ramsey’s life.
I read Fifth Business for the Robertson Davies reading week August 25 to 31 hosted by Lory at the blog The Emerald City Book Review . This was my first experience of Robertson Davies’ works and it is probably his most famous. I feel like Davies is building towards something here, even though Fifth Business totally stands on its own. Therefore, I will very likely read the other two books in this trilogy: The Manticore and World of Wonders. But I highly recommend it if you are looking for a good read that might make you ponder about deeper subjects.
When I read A Prayer for Owen Meany I was surprised and pleased to find that he specifically mentions Robertson Davies -- I believe the narrator, an English professor who has dodged the draft by moving to Canada, teaches his books in his classes! I later found out that Irving greatly admired Davies and was no doubt influenced by him.ReplyDelete
I'm so glad you enjoyed this and hope you will read the next two! I think Fifth Business does stand on its own but you will find some aspects of the story filled out and completed by the others.
Thanks for the comment Lory! I am glad to know my A Prayer for Owen Meany connections are founded. I should reread the Irving title to refresh my memory. I might find more hints and parallels.Delete
I think I will for sure carry on. My library has the whole trilogy available. I believe I will appreciate getting more of the big picture. The trick is not to leave it too long! :D
I haven't read any of Davies' books. Sigh. You think you're well read until.... ;DReplyDelete
I know, right! :D I think he is a much bigger name in Canada.Delete
I hadn't realized about the John Irving connection & this one in particular sounds interesting for that. My favorite teacher as an undergraduate recommended his essays and that's about all I've read. I really should read his fiction...since, ya know, that's kind of what he's known for...ReplyDelete
Thanks for the comment reese! The Irving connection may be more tenuous than I know/suspect. But I like to imagine that Irving was a little inspired by the snowball and fate and am tickled that Davies gets at least a mention in Owen Meany.Delete
I'm not even familiar with the author's name, much less his books. This does sound like a book that would have you stopping to ponder as you read and long after.ReplyDelete
Thanks for the comment jenclair! That's the brilliance of book blogs I think - the exposure to books and authors one might not have encountered otherwise.Delete
For a short book it was pretty packed with ideas, which I liked.
Very good commentary on this book and I found it interesting that Dunny is the one that feels guilt about what happened to Mrs. Dempster and her child born prematurely when actually it was Boy Staunton who threw the snowball. Dunny just ducked. Tells me that Dunny has empathy. Staunton not so much.ReplyDelete
Thanks for the comment Kathy! Yes, who carries the guilt and how guilt is mitigated or if it ever can be is a question that runs through the book. There's lots to chew on in this one. I imagine it is read a lot in Canadian high schools for that reason. :DDelete
Oooooo - I have Cider House Rules lined up to read yet this year.ReplyDelete
Thanks for the comment Care! I re-experienced Cider House Rules earlier this year on audio and felt it still held up. I originally read it back in the 90s when I was a hardcore Irving fan!Delete
His "Cornish Trilogy" was hot in the late 1980s, when I read the "The Deptford Trilogy" and "The Salterton Trilogy" (I was overseas with very little TV so I read all the time). I highly recommend him for his readability and his delving into neglected bodies of learning (like violin maintenance and romany culture). But I acknowledge his characters tend to talk in the same way (intellectual, sensitive) and the stance of the writer is conventional, predictable despite the arcane knowledge.ReplyDelete
Thanks for the comment Major! I'm not so sure I would be interested in violin maintenance but finding out more about Romany culture would be great. I will keep your caveats in mind. I definitely want to at least finish off The Deptford Trilogy.Delete
I do love the slightly refracted view that reading other people's reviews of a book I've enjoyed brings! I'd almost forgotten that this 'memoir' was supposed to be a letter until you reminded me but of course Davies plays with narrative deliveries in the trilogy: epistle here, journal notes in the next and reported conversations in the third. I do think you'd really relish the rest of this series, Ruthiella, I can vouch for it! (And thanks for the heads up about John Irving, something for me to think about -- though I've not actually read any Irving, only watched 'The Cider House Rules' up to now.)ReplyDelete
Thank you for the comment Chris! After reading the posts that Lory has gathered for this reading week, including your review of the Deptford books, I agree that I will very likely enjoy the rest of the trilogy. It's always so exciting to discover a "new" author.:DDelete
I really enjoyed the review, not least because it reminded me how very good Robertson Davies' books can be! I can't remember how I came to read Fifth Business, but it totally pulled me in to Davies' writing. I loved his style and his approach to reality, the idea that without being center stage we can nevertheless have a vast effect on events and other people, and how seemingly random actions can have devastating consequences. I rapidly finished off the other two books in the Deptford Trilogy, which I liked just as much as Fifth Business and moved on to read Davies other two trilogies (Salterton & Cornish) as well. All the novels seemed pretty concise, so reading a trilogy was much like reading a longish novel.ReplyDelete
It's been so long ago that I did all this I've forgotten much of the "details" (like plots and characters!). I agree with one of your other commenters that Davies tends to incorporate esoteric themes into his work (one trilogy had a tarot structure; another dealt with Arhurian underpinings; there's also some Jungian archetypes scattered about) but I actually enjoyed all that. Although my memory of individual books has pretty much been replaced by hazy impressions, I do recall that I liked the Cornish trilogy least (it's still worth reading); Deptford the most and Salterton somewhere in between.
The tie-in/influence/link with John Irving is fascinating! Don't you love it, when you can spot the connections between writers and their works? I've read very little of Irving's work (just Cider House Rules, ages ago) and would never have spotted this.
One very funny thing from your review was your remark that you had looked in vain for some info about Davies' definition of "fifth business." That's EXACTLY what I did, when I read the novel; I, too, was unable to find any indication that the term existed outside Davies' fiction. Since my resources were limited, however, and I was looking in the antediluvian days before the internet, I wasn't confident of my result; it's nice to have it confirmed so many years later!
Thank you Janakay for your detailed comment! :)ReplyDelete
I agree that it is wonderful when we readers can make connections with other author’s works. It is like we are in on the joke.
I read a lot of John Irving in the late 1980's and through the 1990s – everything from The World According to Garp to A Widow for One Year. I recently re-experienced The Cider House Rules on audio and realized that Irving also had to have been heavily influenced by Dickens and it is no wonder that I also love Dickens, though I came to him much later in my life.
I like esoterics and metaphysics in fiction usually (maybe with The Magus as a big exception). I loved, for example, Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum. I think one think I really liked about Davies was how accessible his writing is. There are big ideas in it but I didn’t find them putting or seemingly only there to make the reader feel ignorant.
I had to look up “the fifth business”. I am one of those readers who cannot read over a word they don’t understand or an idea of which they question the veracity. How I managed with without the internet before, I don’t know! LOL.